Buddhist perspectives on society and culture


Buddhist perspectives on
society and culture

The Transcendental Principle and Dyads of the Understanding

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Themes from A Survey of Buddhism – Part One

A Survey of Buddhism (hereafter, ‘the Survey’) was published in 1957 to general acclaim, and has since run through ten editions. Familiarity with it remains essential to any serious student of Sangharakshita, and indeed the first chapter is required reading for postulants to the Triratna Buddhist Order. In what does its significance consist? In the Survey is found the kernel of Sangharakshita’s entire approach to the Dharma, expressed with a level of philosophical precision and thoroughness that was seldom his priority in his later work. While he himself stressed that his earlier thought must be understood in the light of the later, it is equally true that the later was a development of the earlier, and cannot be fully understood without reference to it as a foundation. That foundation received its most complete formulation in the Survey. Although the literature on Buddhism has since burgeoned, and in some ways the scholarship has moved on, Sangharakshita’s survey of the entire Buddhist tradition in terms of its unifying spiritual principles is of timeless value, and is an enduring testament to his extraordinary precocity and spiritual genius. Indeed, in many ways the book’s perspective was far ahead of its time, and is still too little heeded.

The Survey has many qualities, high amongst which is its philosophical depth. Reading it, one encounters an intellect of the calibre of, say, Schopenhauer, combined with a spiritual insight that is beyond intellect. Arising from this combination is an amazing fecundity of ideas, stemming both from the Buddhist tradition and from Sangharakshita’s distinctive interpretation of it. The task of this and subsequent articles in this series will be the exploration of some of these ideas. We shall begin with an attempt to outline the general philosophical approach found in Chapter One.

Of the book’s four chapters the first is the most studied within the Triratna Buddhist Community – with good reason. All the chapters mix essential material with content that, though interesting, is of secondary importance; but it is in Chapter One that the scintillating jewels of wisdom are most densely packed. The subject is what Sangharakshita calls ‘Basic Buddhism’: the teachings that lie at the foundation of the whole tradition. Many of these doctrines will be found in any introduction to Buddhism, but because of Sangharakshita’s vivid awareness of the necessary distinction – and yet the intimate relationship – between the Dharma as a ‘transcendental principle’ and its expression in forms comprehensible to human understanding, those forms as he expresses them breathe with the life of the transcendental. Ancient and familiar as they are, they are revealed as eternally fresh.

It is this distinction-yet-relation between the essentially inconceivable Dharma and its conceptual formulation that underlies Sangharakshita’s philosophical approach in Chapter One, and it is this that I wish to examine in this article. For we are not only told that the Dharma is a transcendental principle, which nevertheless must enter into relationship with the necessary forms of human understanding if it is to be communicated; we are also told what some of the most important of those forms are, and some are examined in detail. Here we find an unmistakable similarity to, and likely even influence from, the philosophy of Kant, whose masterpiece A Critique of Pure Reason receives honourable mention in Chapter Three of the Survey, but language clearly derived from whom is recognizable in various places in Chapter One. My postulation is that a pattern of ideas runs throughout the chapter. The pattern begins with an insistence on the purely transcendent nature of the Buddha’s realisation, and the inexpressibility of the true nature of things as seen by the Enlightened mind. Next, we are introduced to what I shall call a dyad: a pair of corresponding terms, principles, ideas, or archetypes, which arises from the nature of human understanding, and influences the way the Dharma is understood and finds expression.

Altogether, I find six such dyads:

  1. Affirmation and negation – introduced in Sections 8 and 9, and developed much further in Section 16 in relation to the Middle Path and the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
  2. Space and time – introduced by implication in Section 12, but of great importance in Section 14, and at various points in later chapters.
  3. Principle and application – explained in Section 11 in relation to pratītya-samutpāda, and referred back to at various places later in the book. 
  4. Analysis and synthesis – discussed at length in Section 12 in relation to methods of penetrating the true nature of dharmas, and revisited in Section 18 in relation to the doctrine of anattā.
  5. Stasis and dynamism – introduced, at least implicitly, in Section 12, and of greater relevance to the discussion of pratītya-samutpāda in Section 14.
  6. Doctrine and method – identified in Section 15, and referred to repeatedly throughout the book; similar to the distinction between principle and application as found in Section 11. 

Negation and Affirmation

The first, and perhaps most fundamental, of these dyads is that of negation and affirmation. Conception, and even perception, requires categorization, and the affirmation and negation of objects as belonging to categories. This affirming and negating tendency is built deep into the structure of language, and extends as far as the way we conceptualise spiritual life itself. Nirvāṇa and bodhi are both metaphors for the same transcendental state, but the former (which literally means ‘extinguishing’) is a negative metaphor, while the latter (meaning ‘awakening’) is a positive one. (Elsewhere Sangharakshita contrasts śūnyatā and tathātā in a similar way, although this pair refers to the nature of phenomena, not directly to the Buddha’s realisation.) Both, Sangharakshita seems to be saying, are legitimate, so long as the affirming and negating tendencies that are inherent in language are not taken as descriptors of what is ultimately true. Reality in its true nature is neither susceptible to affirmation nor negation in the linguistic sense.

Having said that, since nirvāṇa is utterly transcendent, it can from a conceptual point of view be approached most consistently by way of negation, since any positive assertion about it must involve concepts drawn from within saṃsāra. However true this may be, it has, Sangharakshita says, had some unfortunate consequences, leading to ‘the charge of nihilism’. He identifies the psychology behind this mistake in the following highly significant passage: ‘Effectively to distinguish between thoughts and things, between the concepts which merely indicate realities and those realities themselves, is an art belonging to a highly advanced stage of philosophical discipline and spiritual culture.’ Not having access to such a stage, followers of non-Buddhist schools of thought, as well as some within the Buddhist tradition, mistook the method of negation regarding the relationship between concepts and nirvāṇa for a declaration regarding the nature of nirvāṇa itself – i.e. that it was a state of negation. Sangharakshita counteracts this misunderstanding with a number of references to scripture in which the ‘spiritually positive residue’ that survives all the negations is clearly alluded to. He also refers to the symbolical use of language, especially in the Mahāyāna, to evoke this spiritually positive residue. Such language is not absent from the Pāli Canon, but it seems that the Buddha favoured ‘the negative method of determination’ (perhaps because he was himself an embodiment of the positive result of Dharma practice) and it is this in part that led to the charge of nihilism being so widespread and tenacious.

Nonetheless, symbolical indications of the positive content of nirvāṇa are not lacking even in the Pāli sources. The most important term used there to indicate the positive nature of the goal of Dharma practice is bodhi – so important that from it is derived the term ‘Buddha’ itself, not to mention ‘bodhisattva’. However, Sangharakshita cautions us against misunderstanding bodhi, and in doing so makes some points of exceptional philosophical acuity. ‘Bodhi, he tells us, ‘does not consist in the knowledge of, or union with, an Absolute…’. Postulations of such an Absolute, whatever actual term might designate it, have appeared in various philosophical systems of both Eastern and Western origin. Western philosophy gives us Plato’s eternal Forms, Plotinus and his ‘One’, Hegel’s ‘Geist’, and Kant’s ‘noumenon’, to name just a few examples. And in India, possibly even at the time of the Buddha, ultimate reality was seen as ‘Brahman’, oneness with which was the ultimate goal of the spiritual life. But from a Buddhist point of view these are species of ‘eternalism’ (śāśvatavada), one of the two extremes of wrong view, the other being ‘annihilationism’ (ucchedavada).

To quote a significant passage:

Living as he already does in the midst of phenomena which are ultimately wrong mental constructions, the true disciple does not set up fresh barriers by seeking to elicit from them by means of a process of progressive abstraction a concept which, merely because it possesses the highest possible degree of generality, he regards as being ultimately real, nor does he tighten his bonds by endeavouring to ‘realize’ or to attain union with that concept. This would be to build within the prison of the senses a second and stronger prison of the mind.

Conceptual thought has its basis in perceptions drawn from sense impressions. To perceive an object means to recognize in sense experience qualities, or ‘predicates’, of the object that are shared by other objects of a similar type. This category of similar objects can then have a word attached to it, such as ‘dog’ or ‘cat’. The ‘process of progressive abstraction’ consists of the linking together of conceptual categories into larger categories of a higher order of generality. ‘Dog’ and ‘cat’ can be linked by the more inclusive term ‘mammal’. The further into abstraction one goes, the fewer predicates belong to the category, and the less is communicated about anything that can be directly perceived. If I tell you I saw a mammal, I have given you less information than if I tell you I saw a dog. If I tell you I saw an Alsatian, I have given more information. It is entirely appropriate that we move between different levels of abstraction in this way. Sometimes it is useful to convey more information by using more specific language. Sometimes too much detail can obscure a point, and it is clearer to use a more general term.

This is all well and good. The problem arises from the fact that we have a tendency to continue with the process of progressive abstraction until we reach terms that are so general that they have no empirical content whatsoever, such as ‘everything’. If we then invest such a concept with a metaphysical significance, seeing it as referring to something ultimately real – an ‘Absolute’, standing above and behind the phenomena from which it is abstracted – we have fallen into eternalism. Such a mistake cannot but vitiate whatever notion we form of the goal of spiritual life. If such an ‘Absolute’ is the ultimate reality, the highest spiritual goal must be to attain union with that reality.

This conception of spiritual life is wrong from the start, since it fails to recognise the fact, crucial to Buddhism, that the conceptual categories from which the process of progressive abstraction begins are themselves ‘wrong mental constructions’. They are, in fact, impermanent and insubstantial, and therefore have no inherent reality. To abstract from phenomena with no inherent reality, and then to regard those abstractions as more real than the phenomena from which they were abstracted, is clearly a flawed procedure, and leads to ‘a second and stronger prison of the mind’ to be built within the prison of the senses. In Buddhism, by contrast, ‘the disciple, holding himself aloof from all conceptual constructions, follows the shortest possible path and attains Nirvāṇa through insight into the real nature of phenomena’ [Sangharakshita’s italics]. What this ‘real nature’ consists of will be explored shortly. But in order to gain insight into it the disciple must understand all conceptual constructions, the concrete and the abstract, to be obscurations. 

Although Sangharakshita is here warning against eternalist metaphysics contaminating our spiritual practice, the same point applies whenever we find concepts of a high order of abstraction being posited as having some sort of ultimate validity. Such abstractions give the illusion of including any item of knowledge or perception under them, which brings a false sense of mastery. The same can be said of the tendency to grasp onto a single causal factor to explain complex phenomena.

The difficulty and subtlety, as well as the fundamental importance, of the point under consideration, is acknowledged by Sangharakshita as follows:

Though indispensable to a proper understanding of Buddhist ‘philosophy’ (that is to say, of its systematic conceptual indications of reality), so different is this teaching from all other metaphysical doctrines, so directly contrary, so opposed to the natural tendency and workings of the unenlightened human mind, that it is not to be grasped even partially without strenuous study and prolonged and intense contemplation.

The fundamental difference referred to here between Buddhism and all other metaphysical doctrines is not adventitious, but reflects the distinctive origin and purpose of the philosophical ideas of Buddhism. The natural tendency of the unenlightened mind is to treat the objects of sense experience as though they were real, and therefore to treat the concepts that designate them as though they corresponded to reality. The philosopher who is still subject to this inveterate erroneous tendency, intent on building a metaphysical system, takes, consciously or unconsciously, concepts as his starting point, and more or less ingeniously links these together in a way that he hopes approximates to the truth. The Buddhist, however, orients himself towards a direct insight that is by its nature out of the reach of concepts, and thus sees concepts as themselves a barrier to such an insight. Any ‘philosophy’ that a Buddhist partakes of must, to be true to the Dharma, start by acknowledging the limited scope of concepts, whether concrete or abstract, and confine itself to utilising those that give some indication, however provisional, of the true nature of things as found in direct spiritual intuition. It is to such conceptual formulations that we turn our attention next.

Principle and Application

‘If bodhi is insight into the true nature of phenomena, what is the nature of that insight?’ Before answering his own question, Sangharakshita first repeats the warning: ‘…we must clearly understand that this insight is a purely spiritual attainment, and that it has nothing to do with any kind of conceptual construction.’ Nonetheless, ‘by way of an accommodation to the ‘normal’ conceptual mode of human thought’, the Buddha described his insight as ‘the truth that all phenomena arise in dependence on conditions.’ This is the doctrine of pratītya-samutpāda, of which Sangharakshita says, ‘As the primary formulation of the Buddha’s Enlightenment on the intellectual plane, it is the historical and logical basis of all later developments in Buddhist philosophy.’ The understanding of pratītya-samutpāda as the root doctrine of Buddhism was one that Sangharakshita came to early and remained true to throughout his life. Indeed, he saw it as a touchstone whereby the authenticity or otherwise of later doctrinal developments may be assessed.  

We have observed a distinction between pratītya-samutpāda as a purely spiritual insight, and its expression in concepts. Now Sangharakshita identifies a further crucial distinction, namely that between the general formula and the particular applications of the doctrine. The general formula may be described in various ways, but the most common of these is ‘This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises; this not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases’. But observe, we are told nothing about what ‘this’ and ‘that’ refer to. The formula merely states that ‘this’ conditions the arising of ‘that’. A comparison may be made with symbolic logic, in which A → B stands for ‘if A then B’. This is a purely formal statement, and has no empirical content. If we want to know anything about how the things of the world are in their particularity we need to observe actual phenomena to which the symbols A and B may be attached, and look for possible causal connections between them.

This lack of specifics the Buddha provides for. ‘In order that the disciple might have a clearer comprehension of the principle of conditionedness, the general abstract formula of the pratītya-samutpāda was frequently applied to different concrete groups of phenomena, the origination of which in dependence on causes was thus made more clearly manifest.’ The most commonly used application is that of the twelve nidānas, or ‘links’. These are found so widely throughout the Buddhist tradition that at times the term pratītya-samutpāda has been used exclusively in relation to them. That this is an error is made clear from the fact that the nidānas themselves appear in a variety of forms, sometimes with more, sometimes with fewer links mentioned. But variations in doctrine of this kind need not be seen as contradictions, any more than two sets of directions between two locations are contradictory because they choose to emphasise different landmarks.

We can therefore see pratītya-samutpāda in three different, but mutually entailing, ways:

  1. As supra-conceptual insight
  2. As general formulation
  3. As particular applications

The first of these corresponds to what I previously referred to as the transcendental principle. The second and third together constitute what I am calling a dyad, regarding which we may say that there is an element of human understanding which is abstract – that deals with conceptual superstructure and logical form; and an element which is concrete – that deals with direct experience, whether through the mind or the physical senses. And when the supra-conceptual insight into pratītya-samutpāda is expressed in relation to human understanding, it is refracted through the prism of these two faculties.

The first partner in the dyad is an attempt to describe the content of transcendental insight in terms comprehensible to the intellect, albeit at the highest level of abstraction. It may be that for the exceptionally spiritually receptive this is sufficient. Sāriputta, the foremost of the Buddha’s disciples, is said to have gained insight on hearing a formulation of this kind. For most of us, however, a further accommodation to the limits of our understanding is necessary. We require particular applications relatable to our experience, and relevant to the mechanics of the mind and its release from bondage. This is what the nidāna chain and other such formulations provide.

We can thus see the transition from 1) to 3) via 2) as a descent, from the Buddha’s supra-conceptual insight into the nature of things, through a statement in concepts of that insight as a universal principle, to applications of that principle that are optimally helpful to the unenlightened but spiritually aspiring devotee. Our task as practitioners of the Dharma is to make the journey in the reverse direction, from 3) to 2) to 1), by contemplating particular applications of pratītya-samutpāda in order to come to an understanding of the universal law that they represent, and from that to a direct perception of the true nature things, which the principle as conceptually expressed can merely hint at.

Space and Time

Sangharakshita’s treatment of space and time not as absolute realities but as inseparable from human understanding clearly reveals a similarity with, and possible influence from, the philosophy of Kant. The idea is in fact a significant theme in the Survey, and appears in at least five contexts. One of these is, bizarrely enough, in an exposition of the theoretical framework of Tantric Sex, in which, as if to vindicate the approach I am here taking, Sangharakshita says the following:

Interpenetration [!] is a transcendental reality. As such, it can be only imperfectly represented under the categories of human thought. Two of the most important of these categories are space and time.

Another important application of the distinction is found in Sangharakshita’s treatment of the Five Spiritual Faculties (in Chapter Three), which can, he tells us, be seen either temporally, as stages that are undergone successively in the course of spiritual progress, and thus represented through the metaphor of a ‘path’; or spatially, as qualities that need to be cultivated simultaneously and in balance at every stage of spiritual development, and thus represented through the metaphor of a ‘mandala’. In fact, in any account of the qualities to be developed in spiritual practice, they may be seen in terms either of a path or a mandala. Sometimes one of the two modes is more apt, sometimes the other, and in many cases both can be valid and fruitful. Even the Noble Eightfold Path may be seen according to this dual aspect. Though named and most often thought of as a path, a mandala model of it works equally well – as is implied by the traditional depiction of the ‘limbs’ of the path as spokes of a wheel. The example with which many of my readers will be most familiar is the ‘System of Meditation’, which, originally presented by Sangharakshita as a path, was later broadened into ‘Five Aspects of Dharma life’, all of which should be present in the appropriate way at every level of spiritual development.

But why is it so natural for us to see things in these terms? As Kant identified, time and space are irreducible forms according to which the mind cognizes the world. They are, in his language, a priori, meaning roughly that they are not learned through particular experiences in the same way that, say, particular colours are, but are rather so fundamental that experience cannot be meaningfully conceived of without them. And although in their true nature they are deeply interconnected (as shown by Einstein), as modes of understanding they are to some extent mutually exclusive. In direct perception we see things in time and space simultaneously; but when we form abstract models we are forced to do so according to time or according to space: we cannot do both with equal justice in one moment. As an example, consider the difference between a map and a set of directions. Both use abstraction to form simplified models of complex phenomena, which are serviceable for the specific purpose of navigation. But one does so through the form of space, the other through the form of time. This dyad will be an important theme in the second article in this series.  

Synthesis and Analysis

The dyad of space and time is connected, at least implicitly, with the next that we shall examine (with stasis and dynamism also implicit). We have already been told that Supreme Wisdom consists in the understanding of the true nature of phenomena – or to use the Buddhist term, dharmas. Whence follows the question: what are dharmas? To answer this requires an examination of the term dharma itself, since it has a host of connected meanings. To identify some of them Sangharakshita enlists the aid of Buddhaghosa (the great Theravāda commentator from the fifth century CE) from whom two separate lists of four definitions are quoted, which Sangharakshita condenses into a single list of four, as follows:

  1. The doctrine or teaching of the Buddha (in essence identical with that of all previous Buddhas);
  2. Right, or righteousness, in the double sense of individual behaviour and cosmic law;
  3. Condition (already discussed as the pratītya-samutpāda);
  4. Phenomenon.

It is the fourth of these meanings with which we are now concerned. But before using the term ‘phenomenon’ as a translation of dharma, we must divest it of some of the baggage it carries from its Greek origin. We may mean ‘any observable fact or event whatever.’ But we do not mean, as was implicit in its original usage, ‘a fact or event in the changing perceptible forms, as distinguished from the permanent essences of things’ (my italics). This antithesis between phenomena and (borrowing a term from Kant) noumena – between mutable appearances and the unchanging reality behind them – Sangharakshita says ‘vitiates practically the whole of Western philosophy.’ In Buddhism, by contrast, ‘Noumena do not exist. Only dharmas exist and support dharmas.

In the West the antithesis that is here being refuted received philosophical formulation from Aristotle, through the distinction he made between ‘substance’ and ‘accident’. By a thing’s accidents is meant any changeable properties that it may happen to possess. By its substance is meant its essence, that which makes it what it is, which perdures throughout any changes in its accidents. An example was given by Descartes of a piece of wax, which, when abstracted from its accidental properties such as smell, colour, and shape, remains a piece of wax by virtue of being flexible and movable.

This kind of thinking Buddhism calls ātmavāda or ‘noumenalism’. Against it, Buddhaghosa directs what Sangharakshita calls a ‘double negative definition of dharma-as-phenomenon’. This double negative definition is nissatta-nijīvatā. ‘Ni’ is a negative prefix, so it will be immediately apparent that the definition negates two things: satta, ‘being’ or ‘essence’; and jīvatā, ‘life-energy’. These two terms represent two aspects of the fundamental error of ātmavāda: that a dharma has a fixed and irreducible essence; and that it is the source of its own life-energy. Contrary to this view, dharmas are being defined by Buddhaghosa firstly as ‘without permanent essence’, and secondly as ‘not themselves the source of their own life energy’. The first of these relates to the treatment of a dharma as a fact, the second as an event. Here we are clearly not speaking of facts and events in the ordinary sense of abstract knowledge of things and occurrences – such as ‘the earth goes round the sun’ (fact) or ‘the sun rose this morning’ (event) – but of two ways in which a dharma can be treated. A dharma treated as a fact is something that is, that has an identity as abstracted from the parts of which it is composed, and a boundary that separates it from other things. A dharma treated as an event is something that happens, with an identity independent of the conditions that brought it into being, and a beginning and end point in time which separate it from what precedes and follows it. This distinction between fact and event runs throughout what follows.

Corresponding to the two aspects of the fundamental error of atmavada, we find not only a twofold definition of the true nature of dharmas, but also a twofold method to enable us to discover that nature for ourselves. These two methods Sangharakshita calls respectively ‘spatio-analytical’, and ‘dynamic-synthetical’. The first ‘analyses the phenomenon-as-fact into the sum of its internal parts’, the second ‘resolves the phenomenon-as-event into the sum of its external relations’. The compound term ‘spatio-analytical’ refers firstly to the fact of a dharma being seen ‘as it were spatially and in relation to itself’; and secondly to the possibility of subdivision – or ‘analysis’ – of the dharma into smaller parts. ‘Dynamic-synthetical’ refers firstly to the fact of a dharma being dynamic rather than static, meaning that it is in a state of energy or motion, and that this is not generated from within itself but is borrowed from without; and secondly to the recognition that the existence of the dharma can be understood only ‘synthetically’, in relation to a multiplicity of conditions external to it. The terms ‘analytical’ and ‘synthetical’ here are being used according to a somewhat specialized usage derived from Kantian philosophy. Analysis, which is in more general parlance, refers to the division of an object into its component parts; synthesis, which in this sense is not so widely known, refers to the connection of an object to its external conditions. In The Three Jewels, Sangharakshita gives us the following pithy summary: ‘a phenomenon viewed dynamically is the totality of ‘its’ conditions and viewed statically the totality of its parts, and…over and above these conditions and parts no phenomenon exists.’ (See fig. 1)


Dharma as:
True nature:

Let us take a concrete example: something as ordinary and wonderful as a tree. To treat it according to the spatio-analytical method is to recognize it at any stage in its development as made up of a number of component parts, such as bark, roots, leaves, etc. To treat it according to the dynamic-synthetical method is to trace its stages of development within a temporal series, from seed, to sprout, to sapling etc., and to see it at each stage as a product of external conditions, such as sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide. 

Although these two compound terms together contain only four terms (two in each), three pairs of opposed terms are implied. I have already mentioned that synthetical is opposed to analytical, both terms appearing in the compounds. But although ‘dynamic’ is opposed to ‘static’; and ‘spatial’ is opposed to ‘temporal’, dynamic and spatial appear in the compounds, but static and temporal do not. Risking verbosity, one could call the two methods ‘static-spatio-analytical’ and ‘dynamic-temporal-synthetical’. Why Sangharakshita chose to combine ‘synthetical’ with ‘dynamic’, and ‘analytical’ with ‘spatial’, while leaving out ‘static’ and ‘temporal’, I don’t know, but it is illuminating to consider the latter two also as aspects of the twofold method. The spatio-analytical method is static, because through it one considers the ‘dharma as fact’ to be frozen, as it were, in order to isolate its component elements. And the dynamic-synthetical method is temporal, because a dharma considered as an event is embedded in a temporal series, and changes through time along with the conditions that support it. (See fig.2)

Fig 2.


Returning to Sangharakshita, he furnishes us with a number of examples of the first method. The most famous of these is perhaps the simile of the chariot, which does not exist as something separate from its wheels, axles, frame etc. The meaning of this should be easy to grasp by now. ‘We are attached, not to the components of a thing, but to the whole we imagine to exist apart from those components and which we wrongly conceive of as constituting both their true nature and their relatively unchanging essence’. The same method can be applied, more importantly, to the human being, the most important result of which is the five skandhas of form (rupa), feeling (vedana), perception (samjñā), volition (saṃskāra), and consciousness (vijñāna). Each of these may be further subdivided, such that rupa, for example, may be seen from one point of view as consisting of hair, nails, skin, blood, bones, etc., and from another, more fundamentally, as consisting of the four material elements of earth, water, fire and wind.

An example of the second method – the dynamic-synthetical – is the twelve links of pratītya-samutpāda, which have already been mentioned. In a phrase that some may find rather cryptic, Sangharakshita describes the the twelve links as ‘a unilateral illustration of the multilateral relations of phenomena.’ Any link, in this or any causal chain, will be the product of not one but many conditions – infinitely many, in fact. However, in presenting a temporal sequence we are forced to enumerate one condition at a time. Thus, while the phenomena we are describing are in reality ‘multilateral’, our representation of them in a conceptually expressed causal series reduces them to a ‘unilateral illustration’.

Actually, even ‘multilateral’ should not be understood literally. If phenomena are, from the perspective of the conceptualising mind, infinitely sub-divisible, they must in their ultimate nature be beyond number, so that ‘multi’ is no more applicable than ‘uni’. Or, to put it another way, it would be equally meaningful to speak analytically of conditions being infinitely many, as it would to say that, considered synthetically, there is a single infinitely complex nexus of conditions. Both are merely ways of speaking about the true nature of things, a direct, supra-conceptual insight into which is the sole purpose of the two methods.

For one approaching such a direct insight the distinction between the methods starts to break down, and fact becomes indistinguishable from event. ‘Ultimately’, Sangharakshita tells us, ‘the two methods are one’; or to put it more precisely, they are two approaches to the same fundamental truth. The interconnection between the two methods he expresses as follows: ‘Between the parts into which a given object may be analysed a number of relations exist; similarly, the relations between objects may be analysed into various kinds.’

Complex as this discussion is, the point I would like to emphasise here is that neither synthesis nor analysis inhere in the true nature of things. They are aspects of cognition, essential for navigating the world; but in Buddhism they are utilised as methods to undo the cognitive error of reifying objects. Although the cognitive error is itself undivided, it is expressed in a twofold manner depending on whether one is describing the wrongly cognized object in relation to its internal parts or in relation to its external conditions. The two methods exist merely to address this cognitive error according to its two aspects, one to show that the object has no fixed identity additional to the sum of its parts, the other to show that it has no fixed identity separate from the sum of its conditions. Aside from the activity of undoing the cognitive error, synthesis and analysis have no purchase on reality, and the result of the employment of these methods is the dissolving of the distinction between them in a direct insight into things which is neither synthetical nor analytical in character.

Doctrine and Method

The final dyad I will discuss is named in the full title of the Survey itself: A Survey of Buddhism: Its Doctrines and Methods through the Ages. Sangharakshita introduces it thus: ‘Throughout the Buddhist tradition there runs a clear distinction between what pertains to doctrine, theory, or rational understanding, on the one hand, and what pertains to method, practice, or spiritual realization on the other.’ Two examples are given: dhamma-vinaya, ‘doctrine and discipline’, from the Pāli Tipitaka; and from the Mahāyāna, prajñā and upāya, wisdom and skilful means. One could also mention the description of the Buddha as possessing vijja and carana (wisdom and practice), as found in the Tiratana Vandanā.

Since I intend to write an article exclusively devoted to this dyad I shall not deal with it at length here. I suggest that we can summarize the distinction as consisting on the one hand of what may in truth be said about the nature of things, and on the other of what must be done in order to realise that truth, or experienced as a result. The former pertains more to the objective pole of experience, the latter to the subjective. To offer some examples, the principle of pratītya-samutpāda belongs to doctrine, whereas the reflection on the nidāna chain is in the realm of method. Similarly, the contemplation of the Six Elements is a methodological application of the doctrine of śūnyatā. The distinction corresponds to an extent to that between the general principle and specific applications of pratītya-samutpāda. Sangharakshita describes it as ‘a certain doubleness of aspect under which the Dharma, while remaining in itself unaffected, necessarily presents itself to human understanding.’ This gets to the nub of the matter, and in fact this sentence could describe any of the dyads I have identified. The Dharma as a transcendental principle is something that can be neither affirmed nor negated, neither analysed nor synthesised, is reducible to the point of view neither of space nor of time, and is beyond both doctrine and method. Yet it appears in these forms to human understanding, because these are the forms human understanding takes.


As abstruse as these thoughts may seem, their burden is of considerable significance. If one sees the categories of human understanding as such – as belonging to human understanding, and therefore as unable to do more than point towards the transcendental – one will not be tempted to treat them as ultimately real, with the result that one is less likely to distort the Dharma by mistaking the nature of its conceptual expressions. If one sees negation as an aspect not of reality but of human cognition, one will value affirmative indications of the transcendental equally as highly as negative ones. If one sees both synthesis and analysis as tools for arriving at the truth of things, one will be not only the better equipped, but also less likely to mistake the tool for the task. If one is clear about the distinction between a general principle and a specific application one is less likely to confuse acquaintance with the latter for understanding of the former. If one correctly separates out doctrine and method, one will be able to do justice to both and see them in their correct relationship. And perhaps most important of all, if one sees a spatio-static model of the relation between the path and the goal as a model only, one is free to enrich one’s conception of the Dharma with a temporo-dynamic one. This final dyad, or combination of dyads, will be the subject of the next article in this series.


Vidyaruchi has been a member of the Triratna Buddhist Order since 2009, from which time until 2013 he was personal assistant to its founder, Urgyen Sangharakshita. Since then he has been a freelance Buddhist. When not engaged in teaching or travelling he mainly lives in a shed in his parents' garden.

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